Study Guide

For Whom the Bell Tolls Politics

By Ernest Hemingway


"I put great illusion in the Republic. I believe firmly in the Republic and I have faith. I believe in it with fervor as those who have religious faith believe in mysteries." (9.69)

Pilar wears her impassioned patriotism on her sleeve, to say the least. It seems to be her strongest motivation, what really keeps her going in the war. Perhaps her "faith" is also what gives her the energy to overcome the sadness she describes elsewhere. This isn't the last time that politics will be considered as an equivalent or a substitute for religion. We find it interesting that Pilar has the self-awareness to understand that patriotism plays this role for her, even calling it an "illusion." Does that mean she recognizes the Republic she believes in is not the Republic as it really is?

No. There was nothing to be gained by leaving them alone. Except that all people should be left alone and you should interfere with no one. So he believed that, did he? Yes, he believed that. And what about a planned society and the rest of it? That was for the others to do. He had something else to do after this war. He fought now in this war because it had started in a country that he loved and he believed in the Republic and that if it were destroyed life would be unbearable for all those people who believed in it. He was under Communist discipline for the duration of the war. Here in Spain the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war. He accepted their discipline for the duration of the war because, in the conduct of the war, they were the only party whose program and whose discipline he could respect. (13.59)

Here we get the basics of Robert Jordan's current political motivations. He's not so much an ideologue or a believer in any definite political system or vision – including Communism – as a guy who just loves Spain and the Republic. The Republic's a free government, as opposed to the alternative, fascism. Politically, freedom is Jordan's highest priority; he ends up sounding here like a "liberal" (someone whose essential commitment is the freedom of the individual) without any more particular political commitments. Even if he only follows the communists because of their "discipline," does that seem at odds with his liberalism?

To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy.

When you were drunk or when you committed either fornication or adultery you recognized your own personal fallibility of that so mutable substitute for the apostles' creed, the party line. Down with Bohemianism, the sin of Mayakovsky. (13.62-3)

Robert Jordan draws an interesting link here between rigid belief in an ideology and the suppression of more ecstatic or "sinful" kinds of activity (depending on how you look at it) – sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, basically. He's in good company there (1984, anyone?). What is it that ties all of those things together and makes them an enemy to ideology? His answer is intriguing: they cause you to lose control of yourself, which makes it harder to look at yourself as "pure" or always right. And once that happens, it's harder not to sympathize with everybody else (including the enemies of whatever "bigotry" you happen to subscribe to). In any case, Robert Jordan has himself in mind here, since Maria has just posed a pretty serious challenge to his "continence." (Note: Mayakovsky was a 19th century Russian poet and revolutionary political figure.)

Then he stood there against the tree stamping his feet softly and he did not think any more about the bridge. The coming of the dark always made him feel lonely and tonight he felt so lonely that there was a hollowness in him as of hunger. In the old days he could help this loneliness by the saying of prayers and often coming home from hunting he would repeat a great number of the same prayer and it made him feel better. But he had not prayed once since the movement. He missed the prayers but he thought it would be unfair and hypocritical to say them and he did not wish to ask any favors or for any different treatment than all the men were receiving.

No, he thought, I am lonely. But so are all the soldiers and the wives of all the soldiers and all those who have lost families or parents. I have no wife, but I am glad that she died before the movement. She would not have understood it. I have no children and I never will have any children. I am lonely in the day when I am not working but when the dark comes it is a time of great loneliness. But one thing I have that no man nor any God can take from me and that is that I have worked well for the Republic. I have worked hard for the good that we will all share later. (15.53-54)

Anselmo isn't so different from Pilar in some respects: like her, his patriotism for the Republic serves as a substitute for religious faith, and is the source of his motivating energy. But unlike Pilar, Anselmo had religious faith, and has sacrificed his religious practices for political reasons (the Church sided with the fascists). Another thing: without his prayers, without God, Anselmo is lonely. Does he perhaps look to the solidarity and community of those fighting with him as a substitute?

"But are there not many fascists in your country?"

"There are many who do not know when they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes."

"But you cannot destroy them until they rebel?"

"No," Robert Jordan said. "We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it." (16.116-119)

An interesting and revealing remark about American politics which seems to pop right out of the plot and address itself directly to the American reader. Jordan, and through him Hemingway, is pointing out to his contemporaries that in the United States there are many fascists by their beliefs, even if there is no party. And they must be "taught." Is the book itself perhaps an attempt at teaching? (Some of Hemingway's own friends were fascists by allegiance, such as Gertrude Stein, and his wife, who sided with the Church – and so the fascists – in the Spanish Civil War.)

He had not liked Gaylord's, the hotel in Madrid the Russians had taken over, when he first went there because it seemed too luxurious and the food was too good for a besieged city and the talk too cynical for a war. But I corrupted very easily, he thought. Why should you not have as good food as could be organized when you came back from something like this? And the talk that he had thought of as cynicism when he had first heard it had turned out to be much too true. This will be something to tell at Gaylord's, he thought, when this is over. Yes, when this is over. (18. 31)

Gaylord's is very important to Robert Jordan's own narrative: the place itself is associated with the great change in perspective which took place in him as he began to frequent it. Gaylord's is where Robert Jordan's earlier political fanaticism began to crumble as he came face to face with reality. It's also where his purity, and his "continence," began to be compromised – the good food and the luxury are breaks with that continence. The conclusion of the paragraph reveals that Jordan sees his experience with the guerillas as a continuation of that process.

It was at Gaylord's that you learned that Valentin Gonzalez, called El Campesino or The Peasant, and never been a peasant but was an ex-sergeant in the Spanish Foreign Legion who had deserted and fought with Abd el Karim. That was all right, too. Why shouldn't he be? You had to have these peasant leaders quickly in this sort of war and a real peasant leader might be a little too much like Pablo. You couldn't wait for the real Peasant Leader to arrive and he might have too many peasant characteristics when he did. So you had to manufacture one. At that, from what he had seen of Campesino, with his black beard, his thick n****id lips, and his feverish, staring eyes, he thought he might give almost as much trouble as a real peasant leader. The last time he had seen him he seemed to have gotten to believe his own publicity and think he was a peasant. (18.36)

A major part of Robert Jordan's political transformation is his loss of belief in the necessity of telling the truth. Instead, he comes to feel that deception might be necessary and beneficial. More specifically, in the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans need to pretend to have more popular leadership than they in fact do. The reality is that the Russians, and more experienced Spanish military or servicemen, are in charge. Even though he's not a Communist, Robert Jordan's agreement with this, um, loose use of truth makes him sound oddly like the outspoken defenders of the USSR at the time, which was notorious (especially among Americans) for creating truth to serve its own purposes.

"But an army that is made up of good and bad elements cannot win a war. All must be brought to a certain level of political development; all must know why they are fighting, and its importance. All must believe in the fight they are to make and all must accept discipline. We are making a huge conscript army without the time to implant the discipline that a conscript army must have, to behave properly under fire. We call it a people's army but it will not have the assets of a true people's army and it will not have the iron discipline that a conscript army needs. You will see. It is a very dangerous procedure. (8.142)

Karkov (or maybe Ernest Hemingway) is here giving in a nutshell what he thinks is wrong with the Republican organization and war effort. It basically reduces to a lack of discipline and a lack of shared understanding of what the war is about (the "level of political development"). These were both very real problems, and understandably so, given what a hodgepodge the Republican forces actually were. You can see the truth of this characterization later in the book, when Andrés goes behind Republican lines to deliver his message.

Since when did you ever have any such conception? himself asked. Never. And you never could have. You're not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don't ever kid yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you. You have to know them in order not to be a sucker. You have put many things in abeyance to win a war. If this war is lost all of those things are lost. (26.31)

At heart, Robert Jordan's just a good ol' American, who believes in freedom of the individual (though it's interesting that he groups the American Revolution with the French, which is usually seen as more "leftist"). He already knew he wasn't a Communist, but after what's happened with Maria, he can accept the American dream in a way he couldn't before: he now has a reason to live for himself, and pursue happiness. Plus, he thinks that hard-headed Marxist materialism ("human life reduces to matter plus the laws of the economy!") doesn't seem to have much room for the magical aspect of love.

Karkov went over to him and the man said, "I only have it now. Not ten minutes ago. It is wonderful. All day the fascists have been fighting among themselves near Segovia. They have been forced to quell the mutinies with automatic rifle and machine gun fire. In the afternoon they were bombing their own troops with planes."

"Yes?" asked Karkov.

"That is true," the puffy-eyed man said. "Dolores brought the news herself. She was here with the news and was in such a state of radiant exultation as I have never seen. The truth of the news shone from her face. That great face – " he said happily.

"That great face," Karkov said with no tone in his voice at all. (32.15-19)

There's something a bit revolting about being "puffy-eyed," which is as close to a name as this fellow gets. We're obviously not meant to like him. Or the subject of this conversation, Dolores, La Pasionaria, the famous radical orator for the Republican cause. Hemingway feels the way Karkov does: cynical and unimpressed. Dolores appears to be either deceitful or stupid enough to peddle complete misreadings of the facts and giving them a workover to make them "inspiring." Like here, where she interprets the bombing of El Sordo as the fascists fighting among themselves (this might have been a likely guess applied to the Republicans, actually, but not so much the fascists).

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